The Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced this afternoon the government's plans for a limit on work visas from 1 April 2011. There will be an annual cap of 21,700 on the number of skilled and highly skilled workers from outside the European Economic Area allowed into the UK.

During the last few months, UK businesses have emphasised to the government that the limits can only work if there is priority for skilled workers with a job offer (Tier 2 of the Points Based System) and protection of the ability of companies with international operations to manage workforces globally through intra-company transfers. Fortunately, the Home Secretary's announcement this afternoon reflects these important priorities and skilled workers with a job offer have therefore been prioritised. This means the limit for this route in 2011 remains reasonable.

The government has committed to the following:

  • Tier 1 of the Points Based System – 1,000 (under the new "exceptional talent" route);
  • Tier 2 (General) – 20,700;
  • Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) – full exemption from the limits for anyone earning more than £40,000 in salary;
  • Abolishing Tier 1 (General) and restricting Tier 1 to all but entrepreneurs, investors and the exceptionally talented; and
  • Requiring occupations in Tier 2 (General) to be at graduate level, as opposed to NVQ level 3.

Applicants under Tier 2 will still be required to apply for a visa from the UK Border Agency, but must be at graduate level, be sponsored by an employer in the UK and awarded points on "scarcity of skills and salary". The Home Secretary has indicated that migrant workers will be competing against other applicants for a visa to enter the UK and in the months when the limit is oversubscribed, those with the most points will qualify. The UK Border Agency will distribute Certificates of Sponsorship to employers on a monthly basis.

Businesses will be allowed to continue to bring in their own employees through the Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) route, but they must be earning more than £40,000 if the business wish the intra-company transferee to stay in the UK for more than 12 months. Individuals entering on this basis will be restricted to five years stay. We understand there will be a cap-exempt visa available for intra-company transferees coming to the UK for less than 12 months if the migrant worker is paid £24,000 or more.

The finer detail is now awaited, but we are working with the UK Border Agency to ensure that implementation of these plans is carried out considerably in advance of 1 April 2011